The Return of the Turtleneck

That proven classic, the turtleneck, is back in fashion - just in time to help make your fall wardrobe more fun, interesting and versatile. Known as a polo neck or roll-neck in the UK, and a skivvy in Australia, the turtleneck has already made a number of comebacks, its classic status predicated on its ability to always look right in its new fashion moment.

Having appeared in some form or other for centuries, the turtleneck’s earliest known manifestation dates back to medieval times when knights wore chainmail armor. A turtleneck undergarment made it possible for them to move their necks more comfortably without chafing from metal friction. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I, perhaps drawing inspiration from her knights, took to wearing immense, starched ruffled collars. The “ruff,” as it was called, soon became the height of fashion among Elizabethan noblemen as well.

By the late 19th century, the turtleneck had morphed largely into an undergarment for workers, athletes, sailors and naval officers. Too good to stay hidden long, its coming out occurred when 1920s style icon Noel Coward began sporting it as outer attire. Then 1930s screen hero Errol Flynn made it a signature casual look and men everywhere followed suit.

In the mid-20th century, the turtleneck became the symbolic uniform of artists, philosophers and intellectuals, notably the existentialists. No doubt an implicitly anti-establishment rejection of the bourgeoisie uniform suit and tie, in the 1950s the beats, or beatniks, made the black turtleneck their own unofficial unisex uniform. By the end of the 50s, college students had incorporated the turtleneck into preppie style, so it had already covered a lot of territory.

When in the 1960s designers such as Pierre Cardin started showing men’s suits with turtlenecks instead of button-down shirts and ties, the statement went really big. British music icons such as The Who and The Beatles made them a mod staple, pairing them with everything - blazers, sweaters, vests and Nehru jackets. Meanwhile, the likes of astronomer Carl Sagan, and movie idol Steve McQueen ensured the turtleneck’s newly universal appeal. Men took to wearing them in every imaginable color and design.

Author John Berendt wrote in Esquire that, “the turtleneck was the boldest of all the affronts to the status quo. It was the picture of masculine poise and arrogance, redolent of athletes, sportsmen, even U-boat commanders.” Revolutionary designer Halston, who seemed to always be in either black tie or a turtleneck, said, “Turtlenecks are the most comfortable garment you can wear. They move with the body, and they're flattering too…They make life so easy.” It’s little wonder that in our own times Steve Jobs made the turtleneck (a black one at that) his uniform.

Today this staple proves just as effortlessly stylish and practical. It lends itself to all manner of layering possibilities –under a blazer, a slim pinstripe suit, a V-neck sweater, or sleek cardigan– multiplying your wardrobe possibilities. Interestingly enough, this fall’s men’s collections widely feature turtlenecks not as a replacement for shirt and tie, but donned under the combo, popping up quirkily - a dandyish take on mod style. Try pairing a turtleneck with different kinds of shirts. Or wear a white turtleneck under a white dress shirt and a black motorcycle jacket for dramatic rocker elegance. (Be sure and button that top shirt button.) Turned up or down, color coordinated or color contrasted, ribbed, striped, knit or textured, the turtleneck, in all its variations, once again shows us how it’s done.